Patriots show they're still elite

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Now in his seventh season with the New England Patriots, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork is a senior presence among his peers, a captain who is a go-to player in the team's locker room.

Wilfork has been through the good times, like the exhilarating high of a Super Bowl XXXIX championship in the 2004 season or a perfect 2007 regular season, as well as when things hit rock bottom, like last season's playoff collapse against the Baltimore Ravens.

He said Sunday's convincing 38-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals was just like the good ol' days, a reminder that the Patriots are still, well, the Patriots.

Considering that reports of their demise seemed to be growing in the weeks and months leading up to the season opener, things couldn't have unfolded much better.

"A lot of people don't believe in us," Wilfork said, sounding a lot like safety Rodney Harrison from past years. "We know what we have in this locker room. Only we know. It's up to us to put it out on the field, and I think you saw a glimpse of it. A lot of people questioned it, but we showed that we can compete with the best."

For sure, Sunday's season opener proved that while this might not be 2007, the team still has the talent to be in the mix with the elite teams in the NFL. Given the turnover on the roster, and the influx of 21 first- and second-year players, even that seemed in question entering the 2010 season.

The Patriots were an unknown to many, their list of question marks longer than perhaps any time in Bill Belichick's 11-year coaching tenure.

How could they be better running the ball with the same personnel? Would Wes Welker be himself again? Could they stop the run? What about the pass rush?

For one day, at least, the Patriots came up with the answers.

Fred Taylor, who at 34 wrestled the top job away from Laurence Maroney in the preseason, turned back the clock with a 14-carry, 71-yard performance. The Patriots averaged 5.1 yards per rush, continuing to develop an attitude that when they need a yard, they get two.

Meanwhile, Welker was his usual remarkable self, with two touchdown catches. He was targeted 11 times and finished with a team-high eight receptions.

The run defense was solid, even though there were new players at left defensive end (Gerard Warren), right defensive end (Mike Wright), inside linebacker (Brandon Spikes) and left outside linebacker (Rob Ninkovich). The Bengals, with a powerful offensive line and a hard-charging runner in Cedric Benson, were limited to a 3.5-yard average per carry. The Patriots forced and recovered a Benson fumble in the first quarter.

And the pass rush was sparked by a creative defensive plan that confused Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer with a variety of different looks that helped create opportunities for the team's defensive linemen to break through the line.

"They did a good job disguising things and moving big guys around, creating mismatches and pass rushes," said Palmer, who was hit six times and sacked once. "That's why they have been good on defense for a long time."

Palmer might not have watched the playoff loss to the Ravens, because that Patriots defense wasn't very good at all. The unit also struggled in the second half Sunday, although it wasn't costly because it had built itself enough margin for error with a fast start.

But those second-half defensive struggles should be kept in the proper perspective, especially when looking around the NFL. What team didn't have a few struggles in the opener?

The Colts, who are considered by many an elite team, lost to the Texans. The high-flying, defending champion Saints were held to 14 points in their season-opening win over the Vikings. The supposedly upstart Dolphins scraped to get by the Bills on the road.

Through the afternoon games, only the Titans scored as many points as the Patriots in Week 1.

It is yet another reminder that while the Patriots are sure to experience their share of ups and downs this season -- and next week's road game against the Jets will be a major test -- they still remain in the discussion when it comes to elite teams. After all, the team they just beat handily was considered by some a Super Bowl contender.

In the past, the Patriots have been at their best when they feel disrespected and they played that way Sunday. In doing so, they showed that reports of the team's demise are premature.

"We came out and played with a lot of energy. We fought. We competed. We were physical. We were aggressive," Wilfork said. "I was happy to see the New England Patriots getting back to playing how we know we can play."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.